Interest in golf is slowing nationwide, and that's creating a conundrum for the staff and officials in charge of Lake Oswego's Municipal Golf Course.
Despite being used by 9 percent of the city's population last year — almost three times the national average — the site's overall usage has been in decline, and it now costs the City roughly $182,000 annually to operate an amenity that used to pay for itself.
"Golf is of very high value to the community, but the interesting thing is we're not seeing very many rounds played," says Parks & Recreation Director Ivan Anderholm. "It would be one thing if it were an anomaly where we had a really wet or hot year, but it's a steady downfall."
The downward trend began in 2001 and has been fairly consistent year-over-year since then, prompting the City to consider major changes to the venue on Stafford Road. In fact, the City Council listed "decide the future of the municipal golf course" as one of its goals for 2017 at a council retreat in January.
That future will likely include an overhaul and upgrade of the site, possibly with a slimmed-down golf course to make room for other athletic activities — batting cages, trails or even a new home for Parks & Rec.
Outlining the possibilities
Anderholm said his department has already taken several steps to streamline the course's operations and reduce expenses but is now looking to the council for direction about bigger changes. It could be argued that the course doesn't necessarily need to turn a profit because it's a public service, he added, but that's not how Parks & Rec has approached the issue.
"Since 1983, there's been an expectation that it perform on a break-even basis," he said. "Unless (the council or parks board members) change it, it's our job to try to bring it as close to that as possible."
At a City Council meeting last month, Anderholm presented a variety of options for the course and asked for direction on how to proceed. The simplest of the options was to keep the course as is and accept the operational costs, but Anderholm said he thinks that approach will ultimately become unsustainable due the declining interest in golf.
"(Usage) is still trending down, and we need to do something to stop it from trending down," he told The Review. "I don't think we're anywhere near it right now, but there will be a point where the cost of the service outruns the benefit of the service."
At the other end of the spectrum, the City could close the course entirely and replace it with a park. But Anderholm pointed out that maintenance costs for a park still would be around $150,000 annually — almost as high as operational costs for the golf course.
In between those options are a wide range of ideas, such as adding other activities to the site, decreasing the size of the course from 18 holes to a 12-hole "hybrid" layout or building a new headquarters for the Parks & Recreation Department on the site — or a combination of those options.
The course currently takes up 39 acres, Anderholm said, but a 9- or 12-hole course would only take up 20-22 acres, allowing something else to be built in the remaining space. There's also a possibility of selling off a small portion of the site for residential development, he said, likely as a funding mechanism for changes made to the remainder.
Improving the course, not closing it
The council meeting wasn't intended to narrow things down to a single plan, but one thing did become quite clear: The golf course isn't going anywhere. Several councilors seemed open to the idea of reconfiguring the course, but there was strong opposition to the idea of closing or selling it altogether.
"I think the sale of the golf course is off the table, period," Councilor Jeff Gudman said early in the discussion, and Mayor Kent Studebaker and several other councilors voiced similar opinions later in the meeting.
Anderholm told The Review last week that his department has received similar feedback from the public, with many residents urging the City to keep the course. And he said he wants to make it clear that Parks & Rec agrees with the council and residents.
"The department is 100 percent behind the concept that golf is important for the community, and it's an important service that we provide," he said. "We're trying to improve (the course) and get more people out to use it — that's the whole intent of this. Obviously, if we can do that in conjunction with a better financial performance, that's a win-win for everybody."
The future size of the course is still to be determined, but Anderholm says any plans will include upgrades and improvements that need to be addressed, such as weather-related repairs. The recent harsh winter took a toll on the driving range net, for example, and the course's usage rate drops precipitously during the waterlogged winter months each year.
"It's a wet course, so it's in need of some sort of drainage update so it's playable more often," Anderholm said.
There would also be efficiency gains associated with one of the other major options under consideration: moving the Parks & Rec headquarters to the course site. The department has been housed in the former Palisades Elementary School building for the past few years, but the City has been searching for a more permanent arrangement.
Building a permanent home for the department on the course site would save money in several ways, Anderholm said, the biggest of which would be allowing for a single front desk staff to serve both the department and the course. Councilor John LaMotte expressed strong support for the idea and said it should be the council's top priority when determining how to reconfigure the course.
Several councilors, including LaMotte and Councilor Joe Buck, expressed interest in another big idea: adding new activities to the course, such as batting cages, athletic fields, an amphitheater or even a multi-use recreation facility to draw more residents to the site. Such a facility could also include office space for Parks & Rec staffers.
"I've seen more and more families where they do four things when they make one trip," LaMotte said, "with the kids over here and the adults over there, and I think these multi-use recreation centers are something we should be looking at."
Paying the bills
All of the councilors seemed open to discussing reconfiguration options and ways to increase efficiency, but a couple cautioned against assuming that the course must pay for itself.
Councilor Theresa Kohlhoff said the course was "a public service, not a business," and Gudman said the value of the course to the community could make it worth the cost of operation, especially given that a park of the same size would only cost $30,000 less per year to maintain.
"$30,000 a year is a cost we can and should absorb," Gudman said.
But if the council does opt to pursue a reconfiguration, the biggest question mark for all of the possible plans would be funding. Anderholm provided the councilors with a list of rough cost estimates for several options, pegging the price of reconfiguring the course at $2 million to $3 million.
Most of the smaller additions, such as batting cages or an amphitheater, came in at or below about $1 million, while a multi-use recreational facility would cost between $9 million and $27 million, depending on the square footage of the building and whether it includes an aquatics center.
A clear consensus among the councilors was that any major overhaul of the site would not be funded through a bond measure and must be paid for in some other way, most likely by selling off a portion of the site for development. According to Anderholm, the estimated revenue from the sale of land would be $300,000-$500,000 per home lot.
"Going out with a bond is just not going to fly after we've just done a school bond," said Councilor Skip O'Neill. "People haven't digested that yet."
The current discussion is still preliminary, Anderholm said, and any final decision is a long way off. But the biggest takeaway from the meeting is that the council strongly favors keeping the course in some form and wants to further explore options for reconfiguration.
"The next part of the work that we're doing is an overall study to see if it's even feasible to have a quality golf experience with our offices and programming space (located onsite), and with some of the course going away for residential development," he said.